Artist Mohan Kumar captures the sorrows of a changing forest and lends it new life in his paintings

After 25 years of his life had transpired in one of the high temples of luxuriance, Paris, Mohan Kumar abdicated, and walked into the forests of Kerala. He spent close to two years there, living with the indigenous people, working to preserve the land, and painting. Now, he has come forward to share all he knows about the condition of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

The artist, honoured by the UNESCO in 1988 as one of the 40 great artists in the world, is troubled. “More than 5,000 acres of forests around the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, filled with animal and wildlife, are up for sale. People are waiting impatiently to buy, cut and kill these forests,” he says.

For more than 20 years, he has helped keep the fight alive in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “Now, we're looking for good people, NRIs and others, to buy these lands close to the forest, and let the jungles back in.”

His recently-concluded exhibition at the Sheraton Chola had begun on World Environment Day. Some of the paintings, capturing the sorrows of a changing forest, spider-webs of darkness reaching out between sepulchral trees, abound in myths and madness. Some are translucent with light, and in others, vermilions and angry fuchsias entwine to create women and their woes.

Changing fabric

“There is a lot of infiltration into the tribal belt,” he says. “It's a place where people tunnel into for illegal logging, to distil illicit liquor, acquire animal skins, mine, empty toxic and chemical wastes into the soil and water, divide and conquer the land.”

Tea, coffee and commercial tree plantations have already ripped a gaping hole in the fabric of life in these mountains. The 5520 sq. km. of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is steeped in life and bio-diversity, home to diverse ethnic groups and indigenous communities, and is also the playground of the endangered Lion Tailed Macaque and the Nilgiri Tahr.

“We're trying to bring back organic farming here, revive the indigenous food grains and the traditional drinks that used to be brewed here from fruits and grains, to battle the alcoholism that mushroomed after shops selling foreign liquor opened their doors here.”

Threatened by his moves, Mohan was attacked by the people who had stakes in the wood and the animal skins, his arms and legs broken. “I was crippled, I couldn't paint for close to five years. But I persisted, and the communities, and even a few of the gangs inside, began to acknowledge my services.” He holds up his hands, still slightly crooked at the wrists, and smiles. “I continue to do what I do.”

He's approached corporate barons, and real estate agents, and the collectors of his paintings for help — “unhappy people I'd like to see emerge from the consumer circus someday,” he laughs.

He goes to colleges and tribal schools to talk — “It is their world we're messing with, after all”, and innumerable organisations and government departments to make an investigative film on these troubled areas. “They're too afraid. If anyone wants to help, they're free to get in touch with me.”

Mohan, born in Mahe, pauses before one of his paintings of women hanging on the wall. “I always paint single women in magnificent landscapes — amongst lakes, waterfalls, and wildly dense forests. Because in real life, they cannot walk alone even in a park. I'd like to give them a chance at least in my work. Until we humanise ourselves, we have to keep the hope alive.”

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